Column: Decking the halls, the malls and more

The Christmas tree atop Radio City Music Hall.

The Christmas tree atop Radio City Music Hall.

I’ll let you in on a little secret. Santa’s workshop isn’t at the North Pole. It’s actually located on a small, non-descript side street in Mt. Vernon.

There you will find a 110,000-square-foot warehouse overflowing with ornaments, wreaths, toy soldiers and sleighs, where 160 elves work tirelessly seven days a week for three months of the year making the magic of Christmas come to life. The only difference is that Fred Schwam, an Armonk resident and CEO of American Christmas, calls the shots. As far as he knows, Santa has yet to make an appearance.

American Christmas, in its 45th year, has been lighting and wrapping, ornamenting and decorating, creating the oohs and ahhs of Christmas décor across the country and around the world. They are responsible for some of the most iconic sights in New York City during the holiday season, including the 72-foot Christmas tree that sits atop Radio City Music Hall, the heralding angels and cadets surrounding the Rockefeller Center ice skating rink and the 13-foot nutcrackers lined up in front of the UBS building on
6th Avenue.

The largest Christmas bow in the world in Commerce, Calif.

The largest Christmas bow in the world in Commerce, Calif.

You would be hard pressed to walk down a street in New York City that hasn’t been lit up by American Christmas. Their custom designed holiday installations are in commercial office buildings, five-star hotels, international retailers, flagship stores, hospitals and even on NBC’s “The Today Show.”

The countdown to show time begins each May, when the 120 seasonal employees return to work to join the 40 full-time, year-round employees and  preparations for the upcoming holiday season. This year, the season’s first installation was on Oct. 15 and the last Dec. 10.

Chanukah coming so early this year definitely gave the company a new challenge as it usually delivers menorahs along with Christmas decorations to each jobsite. This year, there were two deliveries per installation instead of one.

Rockefeller Center cadets. Photo/Lisa Jardine

Rockefeller Center cadets. Photo/Lisa Jardine

American Christmas employees are a diverse group with varying backgrounds and experience, but the number-one thing they all have in common is that they are nice.

“It matters less to me about previous work experience or education,” Schwam said. “I just want to work with people who are truly nice. I know that will reflect positively on the work we do. If you are nice, we can figure it out. It’s not rocket science.”

Walking around the facility, the nice factor was tangible. Everyone stopped what they were working on and said good morning or hello. I have to admit to feeling like I really was in Santa’s workshop.

By the time Christmas arrives, they will have installed holiday decorations at more than 525 locations around the world, ranging from $1,000 to $1 million. Then, on Dec. 26, all the decorations have to come back down again.

In January, the company makes all the necessary repairs to the displays and makes sure they are clean and in good condition before they put them to bed. American Christmas takes a bit of a breather in February and then it starts back up again, refurbishing last year’s installations or creating new designs for clients.

This year’s biggest challenge came from Citadel Outlets in Commerce, Calif. Working collaboratively with the client, American Christmas came up with the idea to wrap the building in the world’s largest bow measuring 36 feet wide by 21 feet tall with 75-foot tails hanging off the side of the building. It was a huge success.

Two American Christmas elves inside a wreath. Photos courtesy American Christmas

Two American Christmas elves inside a wreath. Photos courtesy American Christmas

The niceness doesn’t just apply to the employees, it’s also part of the company’s philosophy. Each year, when the decorations come down, they are sorted and checked by the production staff, who look for materials that can no longer be used in clients’ holiday displays and an area in the warehouse set aside for charity is created.

During the first week of December, American Christmas invites 12 to 15 local charities to go holiday decoration shopping for free. For the first time this year, the company filled a 26-foot truck with wreaths, trees and ornaments and drove it up to The Pleasantville Cottage School, a coed residential treatment center that cares for emotionally troubled youngsters.

Schwam became associated with the school after his 12-year-old son started volunteering there.

I asked Fred what the new trend was in grand-scale holiday décor.

“Christmas isn’t trendy, that term applies more to the retail end of Christmas. However, almost all of our lighting is now LED, which allows for more sophisticated technology in our displays. Incandescent lighting is virtually obsolete,” he said.

This past July, American Christmas launched its new website, www.americanxmas.com, and included an employee blog. Each month, a different employee is given a theme to write about and, so far, it’s been a big success. The employees really enjoy being a part of it. This month, Kristen Henriksen, the creative director at American Christmas, answered the question, “Do you ever get tired of Christmas?”

“The truth is, no. Christmas is even more exciting and magical when the project I’ve been scheming for the past year becomes a reality and, quite literally, an overnight success,” Henriksen wrote. “It’s unbelievable that everyone in this organization came together to create something that initially existed as an artistic rendering, a mere figment of the imagination. Ultimately, millions of people see our product that was born out of passion, creativity and countless hours of time and energy.”

I would imagine job satisfaction is not an issue at American Christmas.

So what’s the installation that every employee vies to work on?

That would be the holiday decoration for the set of “Saturday Night Live.” The musical guest for that week is almost always doing its rehearsal at the same time the employees of American Christmas are setting up, providing the nice elves with their own well-deserved private Christmas concert.

“I’m always on the lookout for a great story, an amazing restaurant,
an unusual day trip or a must-see cultural event in Westchester County.”

 To contact Lisa, email
lisa@hometwn.com.
And you can follow her on Twitter, @westchesterwand